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I'm a college student with an interest in tutoring and eventually teaching. I spend a lot of time in class watching my classmates get confused and thinking of better ways to teach the material; I have a background in public policy and have in other capacities spent a fair amount of time explaining complex concepts to people (legislators, people in unrelated departments, students next?) without the background knowledge to understand those concepts if given technical jargon.

That's all good, but I found another problem: as an instructor, how do I identify and deal with assignments that are just a waste of time?

I've noticed this with some courses. In one particular course, we had a semester-long assignment on a topic we didn't cover in class; rather, there is a reading assignment and a number of extremely trivial but time-consuming mini assignments (like, 6 in one day) given as homework. Overall, the semester-long project demands we learn the topic; while the assignments along the way seem to demand a lot of time for little if any learning. Some students did their projects but lost a lot of their grade because they never did any of the homework, which is bizarre.

I'm not sure this tests learning, or is conducive to learning. How do I determine if such work is helping students learn or just wasting their time? Wasted time could better be spent on something else, whether something that actually helps the student learn (the given course or another concurrent course) or just leisure so they don't burn out. How do educators normally determine if the assignments they give students maximizes their learning or if it gets in the way?

(This is probably related to the question about lectures, considering in some classes 2/3 of the students skip the lecture because it's worth more to study in groups during that time.)

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  • All I can say is "follow your common sense". As instructors, we are all prone to errors and under/overestimating the usefulness and difficulty of the assignments we give to the students. Try to diversify a bit combining routine exercises with more challenging assignments and give the students some leeway like having the maximum possible score of 120 with 100 points officially enough for an A. There is no "size that fits all" in homework: what is a total waste of time for one student may be very useful for another and vice versa. Just play it by the ear and monitor the outcomes.
    – fedja
    Nov 26, 2023 at 0:56
  • The problem with that is common sense justifies anything you want to think is right. For example, in grade school (NOT college), it's common sense that homework is important…except many teachers have found that the students learn best if they eliminate homework and take a different approach to teaching. Seems homework in grade school is almost if not entirely worthless. This is used heavily to manipulate people in politics (in this case you could just argue that homework is obviously important, everyone knows that, and people would buy it because it's common sense).
    – John Moser
    Nov 26, 2023 at 17:42
  • "common sense justifies anything you want to think is right" That depends on one's definition of "common sense". Mine is "personal observations resulting from reasonably extensive trial and error". It is subjective, but you will, probably, agree that what works for some teacher with some class may dramatically fail for another teacher or another class. I never assign extensive compulsory homework, BTW, just give regular in class quizzes letting the students know what types of problems will be there in advance and allowing them to choose how much/little practice they need to prepare for them.
    – fedja
    Nov 26, 2023 at 17:55
  • I'd note that you have asked two different questions: First you ask how to ascertain whether particular assignments are helping students learn. Then you ask how to determine whether any given assignments maximize student learning. These are probably different questions, and "maximizes" is maybe ill-specified to the point of uselessness.
    – user176372
    Nov 26, 2023 at 18:06
  • Maximization is a goal that requires eliminating things that aren't useful; but yes, I assume the optimization problem in general is unsolvable and has the same issues as seeking Pareto optimality (i.e. local vs. global maximum is not obvious). Perhaps that was poorly worded.
    – John Moser
    Nov 26, 2023 at 18:19

2 Answers 2

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A strategy I have found quite useful is to spell out what I want my students to learn on the syllabus that is distributed on day 1 of the class (the "learning outcomes"), and to take the task of writing these learning objectives seriously -- what do I want my students to know and be able to do when the class is over?

Then, when I write homework, I check every homework assignment against the list of learning outcomes. It is easy to write assignments because they just seem related to the topics we're covering in class ("apply this theorem to this situation"), but many of the assignments I come up this way do not make the cut because being able to do rote work is not really what I'm after; the problems that survive the comparison against the learning objectives tend to be the ones that let students explore things from a different angle, connect to material they have learned in previous classes, etc. These are the problems that I find it worthwhile letting my students work on.

I tend to do the same with exam questions. My goal with exam questions is that students walk away from an exam and can say "I learned something today".

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    That's a good approach. In this case, this is related to a programming language, and our professor told us day 1 that nobody just memorizes everything in programming; our most important skill is looking up the documentation for whatever we're trying to do, and trying something and adjusting based on the result (e.g. swapping function inputs because it's y,x not x,y). This seems incongruous with many small, tedious, and severely narrow-scope exercises, versus the more complex but approachable projects that are small but require accomplishing some meaningful goal by reasoning.
    – John Moser
    Nov 26, 2023 at 17:39
  • @JohnMoser Yes. My assignments tend to be four or five longer questions around a common theme, rather than 8 or 10 independent and unconnected shorter questions. Nov 27, 2023 at 3:06
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This question is extremely broad in practice. How do instructors ascertain the utility of their assignments is? Trial and error, more or less. You must obtain data from such trials somewhere:

  • Your own trials and assessments of exercises you assign in your own courses.
  • Your own analysis of assessments and assignments you have been given in the same or similar courses.
  • Anecdotes from colleagues on trial and assessments of exercises they assigned in their own courses.
  • Trials and assessments of exercises done by education researchers who report on their findings.

I've heard of no quick and easy recipes for synthesizing the available information into a prediction of the usefulness about any given assignment.

Defining "learning" in a precise and nontrivial way is hard. Also, assignments are not undertaken in isolation: Each student's background, the context of their other assignments both in the same course and others, the course objectives, and the class schedule all impact and constrain what might be effective.

A few additional comments:

I've noticed this with some courses...

When analyzing personal experiences and anecdotes, being as precise as possible about your positive and negative criticism may be most useful in the future. You've started on this: In the context of the course, what do you think the learning objective(s) of the assignment you described were? What aspects of the assignment contributed positively to your accomplishing those learning objectives? Why? What contributed negatively, and why?

For instance, I can't tell from your description whether you considered the micro-assignments were too easy, too long, or were assigned on too rigid a schedule.

  • In the first case, the assignment did not prompt you to engage in additional activities which contributed to a learning objective that you would have otherwise not done.
  • In the second case, the assignments prompted you towards activities that significantly helped accomplish a learning objective, but you think you would've accomplished the same or similar with significantly less.
  • In the third case, the assignments prompted you towards useful activities you would not have otherwise undertaken, but you're confident you could have completed them at the same average rate given more flexibility.

I have a background in public policy and have in other capacities spent a fair amount of time explaining complex concepts to people (legislators, people in unrelated departments, students next?) without the background knowledge to understand those concepts if given technical jargon.

You know this, but it seems worth saying. Your background would probably be very useful to as an instructor, but the objectives and constraints of a college instructor are very different from a legislative adviser. Don't put the cart before the horse, however. Your instructors may be a lot more effective at accomplishing their objectives given the context than you notice as a student.

Decision-makers need to construct very rapidly a mental model of a technical subject that lets them make reasonable decisions related to it. College students have several years to develop a whole range of skills, including quite high-fidelity understanding of several subjects in a whole field of knowledge. You cannot be spared from learning precise language if a subject is incomprehensible without it.

Some students did their projects but lost a lot of their grade because they never did any of the homework, which is bizarre.

This does not sound so bizarre to me. It's very hard to determine whether this outcome is within parameters except without the whole class's performance, and hopefully data from previous runs.

One of the major tangential objectives/constraints of teaching classes of students who are predominantly 18-22 years old directly out of high school is promoting a level of personal responsibility where people can be successful as adults. A substantial number of students come in without robust mechanisms to keep up with and finish their assignments effectively. Usually it's exactly short/small/frequent assignments that aren't repeatedly announced in lectures where this problem turns up.

Trying to promote responsibility in a reasonable way for those who need it without driving those who don't up the wall is a constant tension. Break content into too many small pieces that are due very often and those who can handle their schedules more effectively are frustrated. Break content into too few big pieces that are due infrequently and many students overestimate their progress due to lack of feedback.

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  • Good feedback. My issue is the assigned content was not very helpful and could have been skipped entirely in favor of just doing the project; and simultaneously took a long time. Very little learning for time invested. I needed a few seconds for each of the small questions and that still took a few hours each week; I needed a couple minutes to process each small practical example; and I didn't bother reading the material, which would have taken even longer. Also this is a first-semester gateway class, these students know nothing; it's different teaching a 4th-semester 300-level class.
    – John Moser
    Dec 15, 2023 at 14:31

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